Before I can discuss income inequality and its relationship to education, I need to do a little time traveling.
After I finished college, I moved to New York City. I was anxious to experience my “New York Dream” and dive into the cultural richness of The Big Apple. Arriving in New York with no job and little money, I was priced out of virtually every neighborhood, so my best option was an apartment in a saggy walk-up on East 104th Street in the heart of East Harlem. I was not so naive that I failed to realize the new owner of my building—pursuing his own New York Dream of buying a decayed building on the cheap and flipping it for a small fortune a few years down the line—was likely thrilled to rent an apartment to an abundantly Caucasian Ivy League graduate who seemed blithely unconcerned about being the only white guy for many, many city blocks around. However, preoccupied with the quotidian tasks of paying my bills and feeding myself, I was thrilled to have four walls that were barely affordable, so I set my worries about being part of someone’s gentrification fantasy aside.
I spent the next six years dutifully taking a subway from 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue to a series of offices in midtown Manhattan. It was not long before I realized how the juxtaposition of my very down-at-the-heels neighborhood and the immense wealth I saw around me during my work days began to affect me. My neighbors were typically neither lazy, stupid, nor criminal. They were, however, hobbled by the lack of academic and social capital that holds back those without a solid education.
Those six years helped develop my understanding of the economic barriers and societal prejudices that hold back so many and—realizing that so much about one’s life is relatively immutable—my focus on quality public education as a critical change agent in the lives of those with few other options for personal improvement. Finally taking my leap into teaching in a high school classroom at the age of forty-two was a sign of my belief that public education is the fulcrum upon which so much of our nation’s future swings.
Many believe that income inequality can be easily solved by taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor, but I do not think we can tax/redistribute ourselves out of the inequality problem we are experiencing because any additional revenues we can generate through increases in taxes and fees are going to be gobbled up by the many other needs (infrastructure, pensions, housing, healthcare, etc.) standing in line ahead of providing some tax benefit to those who are struggling. Moreover, any minimal tax relief will be of little use if you cannot find a job to begin with because you lack the academic background to do a job and upgrade your skills as rapid changes in technology demand.
I continue to believe that the root of the problem of income inequality is the ongoing—and seemingly intractable—issue of providing quality public education to all of our children. Income inequality is caused (or at least greatly exacerbated) by a public school system that continues to hand diplomas to young men and women who cannot read, write, compute, or think—and nothing else we try will help until we resolve this problem.
Nationally, according to the US Department of Education, 60% of students at community colleges and 20% at four year colleges need to take a remedial (high school level or below) class in reading, writing, or math—and these are students who have already earned their high school diplomas. Worse yet, at some colleges the number of incoming students who require remedial education is significantly higher.
This lack of adequate academic preparation in our public schools has a very detrimental impact on student persistence and completion in college, and many of our students are left in the worst of all possible situations—student debt but no degree—because the hill is just too high to climb due to the academic deficits they are struggling to remediate later in life. Imagine how very limited the futures of these non-degreed but indebted men and women will be and how this will contribute to the problem of poverty—and continue to drive inequality.
Throwing the most needy a bone in the form of a subsidy or a temporary job will solve little or nothing because they are often far too academically disadvantaged to benefit in the long term. Obviously, not everyone with a good education will rise out of poverty, but we can be certain that almost none will unless we reform our nation’s public schools in order to consistently emphasize higher standards and measurable results.